Tue, 06 Aug 2002

Experts fear debate over sharia a political ploy

Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Of the contentious issues remaining as regards the amendment of the 1945 Constitution, the incorporation of sharia stands out as defining the divide between the nationalist and Islamic parties.

As the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) wraps up its four- year-long amendment process during the Annual Session, the debate continues among legislators over the incorporation of sharia into the Constitution.

Outside the MPR, demonstrators hit the streets of Jakarta, Bandung in West Java and Makassar in South Sulawesi as thousands demanded that the MPR adopt a clause calling for the imposition of sharia.

Experts, however, have voiced concerns that the debate in the MPR has more to do with seeking support from Muslim fundamentalists rather than cleansing the country of its moral decay.

"I fear it's all a farce based upon the short-term interests of certain political parties," said historian Anhar Gonggong on Monday.

He said he doubted that the parties were actually thinking of implementing sharia as they knew the majority of Muslims here opposed the idea.

But with some of their constituents demanding the imposition of sharia, Muslim-based parties had their image to think about if they sided with their nationalist peers in promoting a more secular version of Islam here, political analysts have said.

Among the Muslim-based parties is the United Development Party (PPP), whose chairman Hamzah Haz has been criticized for his overtures to Islamic hard-liners while acting as the country's Vice President.

The PPP and the Crescent Star Party (PBB) insist on adding the last phrase of an earlier version of Article 29 of the Constitution that called on Muslims to comply with sharia.

In 1945, politicians dropped the phrase following complaints from the predominately Christian eastern parts of Indonesia, and as they tried to conform to the ideal of a pluralistic society.

"Our founding fathers reached a consensus, and opening that debate again is a step backward," Anhar said.

He dismissed the arguments which suggested that imposing sharia would improve the nation's morality, saying that morality should start with the political elite.

Anhar noted that many Muslims practiced their religious duties by adhering to sharia privately. "Islam in Indonesia is working without sharia (being imposed by the state)," he said.

Political analyst and member of the General Elections Commission Chusnul Mari'yah said that the concept of sharia that its backers were campaigning for lacked clarity.

Under a strict interpretation, sharia requires stoning for adultery and hand amputations for thieves. Very few countries have adopted this version of sharia with the exceptions being found in the Middle East.

Among Southeast Asian countries the idea is alien, although calls for imposing strict Islamic law also exist in Malaysia.

Despite the polemic in the MPR, Chusnul added, public discussion of the issue was rare.

She said political parties fell short of explaining how to implement sharia in a pluralistic society such as Indonesia. "Is sharia a pretense for patriarchy to take over and to force women back into the home?"

Demands for the sharia surfaced when the constitutional amendment process began in 1999. But the issue has largely remained the concern of Islamic fundamentalists and lacks the support of the country's two largest Muslim organizations -- Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.

Indonesia's only example of a working sharia arrangement is found in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province. It has been law in the country's westernmost province since January as part of a special autonomy package that includes promoting the practice of Islam.

"Not much has changed though," said Teungku H. Imam Suja, who chairs the Muhammadiyah branch in Aceh, commenting on the locals' everyday lives following the imposition of sharia.

After six months under sharia, he said, the province lacked the bylaws and forces needed to ensure its implementation.

The conflict between the armed separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian state that has raged since 1976 had seriously undermined law and order, and put into question the effectiveness of the implementation of Islamic law.

Imam expressed concern that the government's sole intention in allowing the implementation of sharia was to draw local support away from GAM.

"We don't want sharia that is just a political vehicle," he said.